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Rebecca Tapscott, Ph.D.


Graduate Institute, Geneva (IHEID)

Country: Switzerland

About Me:

Rebecca Tapscott is an Ambizione Research Fellow at the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy and a visiting fellow at the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa at the London School of Economics. Her research interests include political violence, security, and authoritarianism; gender—particularly masculinities—and the state; and institutions of ethical review as they pertain to knowledge production and global governance. She is completing a book on arbitrary governance in Uganda through a study of the informal security sector (under contract with Oxford University Press). Her current project examines the transnational diffusion of ethics research regulations and the political consequences of this emergent regulatory framework for conflict studies. Rebecca holds a PhD from the Fletcher School at Tufts University. She is the recipient of the Alfred Rubin Prize from the Fletcher School and the International Studies Association’s Carl Beck award.

Research Interests

Political Violence

African Politics

Gender and Politics

Non-Democratic Regimes

State and Local Politics


Research Ethics

Vigilantes/community Security

State Formation/consolidation

Authoritarian Politics

Armed Conflict


Post-conflict Security

Police And Politics



Gender & Citizenship

Countries of Interest




Journal Articles:

(2019) Conceptualizing Militias in Africa, Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics

Although militias have received increasing scholarly attention, the concept itself remains contested by those who study it. Why? And how does this impact contemporary scholarship on political violence? To answer these questions, we can focus on the field of militia studies in post–Cold War sub-Saharan Africa, an area where militia studies have flourished in the past several decades. Virtually all scholars of militias in post–Cold War Africa describe militias as fluid and changing such that they defy easy definition. As a result, scholars offer complex descriptors that incorporate both descriptive and analytic elements, thereby offering nuanced explanations for the role of militias in violent conflict. Yet the ongoing tension between accurate description and analytic definition has also produced a body of literature that is diffuse and internally inconsistent, in which scholars employ conflicting definitions of militias, different data sources, and often incompatible methods of analysis. As a result, militia studies yield few externally valid comparative insights and have limited analytic power. The cumulative effect is a schizophrenic field in which one scholar’s militia is another’s rebel group, local police force, or common criminal. The resulting incoherence fragments scholarship on political violence and can have real-world policy implications. This is particularly true in high-stakes environments of armed conflict, where being labeled a “militia” can lead to financial support and backing in some circumstances or make one a target to be eliminated in others. To understand how militia studies has been sustained as a fragmented field, this article offers a new typology of definitional approaches. The typology shows that scholars use two main tools: offering a substantive claim as to what militias are or a negative claim based on what militias are not and piggy-backing on other concepts to either claim that militias are derivative of or distinct from them. These approaches illustrate how scholars combine descriptive and analytic approaches to produce definitions that sustain the field as fragmented and internally contradictory. Yet despite the contradictions that characterize the field, scholarship reveals a common commitment to using militias to understand the organization of (legitimate) violence. This article sketches a possible approach to organize the field of militia studies around the institutionalization of violence, such that militias would be understood as a product of the arrangement of violence. Such an approach would both allow studies of militias to place their ambiguity and fluidity at the center of analyses while offering a pathway forward for comparative studies.

(2019) Naked Bodies and Collective Action: Repertoires of Protest in Uganda’s Militarised, Authoritarian Regime, Civil Wars

How can citizens living under increasingly militarized and authoritarian regimes exercise political voice? Using an in-depth case study of naked protest in modern day Uganda, this article finds that naked bodies allow citizens to employ three types of overlapping power to confront a militarized authoritarian state: biopower, symbolic power, and cosmological power. The study illustrates one way in which citizens seek to engage militarized regimes—and in doing so, how political voice takes particular forms with limited capacity to instigate broader political claim-making that might be associated with country- or region-wide political action.

(2018) Policing men: militarised masculinity, youth livelihoods, and security in conflict‐affected northern Uganda, Disasters

Relations between militaries and masculinities—and hegemonic masculinity and the state—are well‐established in the literature on gender and development. However, there is less research on how militarised masculinities relate to state governance strategies. This paper, based on qualitative research conducted in northern Uganda between 2014 and 2017, offers a gender analysis of youths participating in informal security arrangements. Civilian male youths accept poorly paid or unpaid work in the informal security sector in the hope of gaining access to livelihoods that will enable them to fulfil masculine ideal‐types. However, this arrangement denies them the resources necessary to achieve the ideal‐type of civilian masculinity, as well as the state's military masculinity, which produces young men as subjects of the ruling regime. To reconfigure this relationship between civilian and militarised masculinities, one should understand informal security organisations in the context of alternative livelihood arrangements and take a long‐term approach to the demilitarisation of the Ugandan state.

(2017) Local security and the (un)making of public authority in Gulu, Northern Uganda, African Affairs

This article explores the way in which the concept of ‘public’ is continually and unpredictably constituted, redefined, and unmade in Gulu District, northern Uganda. It uses case studies of three local security initiatives and their conflicts with state agents to examine how public authorities establish power through a dynamic process of both claiming and denying authority, thereby divesting themselves of responsibility to intervene. It also shows that the state maintains its power over other claimants to public authority such as the local security initiatives by unpredictably shifting the boundary between public and private, and enforcing these seemingly arbitrary definitions with a very real threat of violent force. Together, these two phenomena prevent civilians from developing expectations of public authorities or creating alternative public authorities, which helps to explain the lack of state accountability to citizens in northern Uganda.

(2017) The Government Has Long Hands: Institutionalized Arbitrariness and Local Security Initiatives in Northern Uganda, Development and Change

This article examines the relationship between the state security apparatus and local security initiatives in Gulu District, northern Uganda. It draws from more than 200 interviews and seven months of qualitative field research from February 2014 to December 2015. Although the central Ugandan state is believed to be weak or absent in the post‐conflict north, the article finds that in the area of security, the state is ever‐present in citizens' imaginations. This study makes two interrelated arguments. First, perceived state presence is a result of seemingly arbitrary and harsh interventions on the part of central government, which the author terms institutionalized arbitrariness. Second, in Gulu District, institutionalized arbitrariness is an effective and efficient mode of governance. This is due to civilian imaginations of state violence, shaped by the two‐decade long conflict, as well as the power of the central state, reinforced administratively and through an elaborate intelligence network. Thus, institutionalized arbitrariness allows the central state to fragment political and social resistance to its rule and undermine the ability of citizens to make meaningful claims on the state.

(2016) Where the wild things are not: crime preventers and the 2016 Ugandan elections, Journal of Eastern African Studies

In Uganda’s 2016 elections, international and national commentators questioned the role that the government’s crime preventers – or community police – would play. Many claimed that they would be used “as tools” to rig the elections, intimidate voters, and vote en masse for the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) regime. In contrast, this paper shows that the government never intended the crime preventers to play an explicitly coercive role. Instead, the NRM leadership intentionally structured the crime preventer program as indefinite and fluid, allowing political authorities and citizens to understand the purpose of crime preventers alternately as dangerous tools of the regime, family men in search of work, or patriotic citizens of Uganda. Used interchangeably, these logics – which are described in this paper as ideal-typical categories of political, economic, and social – prevented Ugandans from accurately assessing the program. The resultant uncertainty fragmented organization of crime preventers, civil society, and members of the opposition; limited the government’s responsibility for crime preventers; and helped ensure that crime preventers would bolster the strength of the NRM regime in the 2016 elections.